Damian Hinds, MP is an Alton resident and a not-so-new boy in the House of Commons after winning the East Hampshire Parliamentary seat at the General Election last May.
In this relaxed interview, This is Alton asks him about some of the aspects of his work as MP and his take on supermarkets and the Government proposals for woodlands in our area.
You can’t trust everything you read on the internet, so when Damian arrived at the studio for his shoot and interview, I immediately put my foot in it by asking him how he came to England as he was born in Sydney, Australia. ‘No, I wasn’t’ he laughed ‘I come from Paddington!’
‘Are you sure?’ I asked, breaking the ice. ‘Wikipedia says you were!’
‘I’d better change that’ continued Damian, ‘I’ve not made an entry on there before.’
‘Neither have I!’ I replied, having successfully broken the ice.
And the interview began.
TIA – Damian, you live in Alton with your Wife Jacqui and your little girl, Kitty. Can you tell us how you met Jacqui and how you came to live in Alton?
DH - Well, we met through her brother who is an old friend of mine so I knew my brother-in-law before I knew my wife, and we moved here around 3 or four years ago when I was selected to contest the seat (for East Hampshire) before the general election.It is particular nice being in this area because for Jacqui, its coming back to an area where she went to school. It’s about as nice an area s you could possibly hope for. What’s not to like?
TIA – Being an fairly recent Alton resident, can you remember your first impression of Alton and the East Hants area, the first time you saw it?
DH - Hmm. I think Alton, Petersfield and Bordon are fantastic market towns with so much going for them, and also their challenges about employment, having a vibrant local economy, and housing for local young people to live and transport, which is never good in rural areas – it’s all those sorts of things, but fundamentally a brilliant area to live with so much going for it; Fantastic countryside on your doorstep combined with a bustling town with pretty much everything you need. Alton seems to have one of everything!
TIA - How are you feeling about all the affordable housing that needs to be ‘put in’ around East Hampshire and where are ‘they’ thinking about putting them?
DH - This is a challenge across Britain, but particularly the South East outside of London.
There’s always tension because on the one hand, if you say to people, ‘What are the challenges in the area? What do we need to do?’, They’ll say. its difficult for young people growing up to aspire to home ownership in particular and being able to live [in the area]. And then on the other hand, of course, people quite often are nervous about actual housing development . . . but the answer to the question, where does there need to be affordable housing? Actually we need to have housing in Alton and the villages, right across East Hampshire. There is of course affordable housing in these areas already, but we need to make sure as things go forward, there is the right balance so that people in different jobs, different family situations and different ages, that they all have their place to live because that is what makes a vibrant community.
TIA – Thinking specifically of Alton, you are obviously aware of the mini supermarket war with Waitrose, Morrisons and Tesco all wanting to come to Alton. Do you think they have been looking at the housing plans of the south east and thinking ‘Alton is a prime spot, we want to be there’?
DH - I’ve no doubt they see Alton as a prime spot and the further point is that there is only one large format supermarket here at the moment. But even without further housing development, I’m sure Alton is a very attractive ‘target’, as it were, for one of the other supermarkets. As MP, I have to be careful not to take a position on that particular planning application. But there are other broader policy considerations when talking about supermarkets and in particular there’s the impact that any new supermarket will have on the existing traders within the town, the community and on the town center. I believe very strongly, that in towns like ours, one needs to put effort into making the town center vibrant and healthy.
We are lucky here to have not only a great store population but also all the different groups who do put in a stunning amount of effort. We talk about the Big Society; there are parts of the country where you have to explain to people what the Big Society is. Here, you don’t really need to because this is what happens in Alton and East Hampshire all the time.
TIA – With the Alton museums issue, that’s a fantastic result from HCC saying we going to all but close it, to having the Alton Museums Group go to them and say that it is not acceptable and to come back with what they have is a superb result.
DH - Absolutely! And it goes to show the power of individuals to make a difference. Quite often with things, it can feel like ‘What can I, or what can we as a group do?’ but examples like that demonstrate that you just ‘start’ and then bring other people on board and you come up with ideas, you discuss them and then you end up with a good result.
TIA – You mentioned earlier about the East Hampshire area having lovely countryside, can you explain the Government’s plans to sell-off parts of it’s woodland?
DH - This has been a hugely controversial topic! I’ve received an awful lot of correspondence about it from many concerned local residents and I understand why they are concerned.
As of 11th February, we are two weeks into a consultation which runs for twelve weeks and I take the secretary of state at her word when she says that this is a proper consultation, we are taking people’s views. So there is an opportunity in the next ten weeks to first of all, put across our views as local residents and also to raise the outstanding questions. There are a number of points in the proposal that are unclear so I’m pressing ministers on those now. I’m also organising a public meeting on 11th March at the Maltings Centre so that I can hear everybody’s concerns so when I write my own formal submission to the consultation, I’ve got the benefit of everybody’s input.
To be fair, it’s not actually about selling the freehold, it’s about leasing to either (depending on the type of forest), potentially to commercial organisations or to charities, trusts or local community groups.
TIA – To do what? To build on?
DH - No, you can’t build on a forest. The government haven’t communicated this particularly well to be honest! There are actually three different things going on. There’s this big consultation going on about the future of woodlands and forests owned by the Forestry Commission in general – 85% of the Forestry Commission land where the consultation ends in April. There’s another thing that complicates matters which is the remaining 15% which was subject to a programme of transfer of ownership or selling , whatever you want to call it which continues a process that has been going on for years of bits of Foresty Commission estate being sold-off. The Medstead issue of the car park entrance at Chawton Park Woods is a different thing again which as I understand has been going on for a long time of Forestry Commission asset management by selling much, much smaller bits of land which, as I understand have to be not-sustainable forests. So, in theory, you have some land which is not forested, you can sell it.
The news today [11th February], by the way, is on the middle bit, the 15% – that programme is being suspended.
The big thing that many people are up in arms about which is the entire rest of the [Forestry Commission] estate and what will be its future. That then is a mixture of transfers of ownership. The Government proposal that it is consulting on is a mixture of some commercial organisations taking leases on these enormous commercial type forests, but also community organisations taking on smaller forests and so on.
TIA – You sit on the Education Select Committee. What exactly does it do?
DH - It does a few different things, but mostly what it is about is holding the Government to account on it’s education policy and publishes specific papers on specific area of education policy which the Government then has to respond to.
Although it’s called the Education Select Committee, it actually covers everything to do with children up to the age of 16 or 18. We have so far completed and published a report on behaviour and discipline. We are doing another one on role of Ofsted and we are just starting a big thing on Youth Services.
We met every Wednesday morning and depending on what stage we are at in any of the reports, the committee calls in experts. For example, with Youth Services, we bring in the Scouts or the YMCA and get their expert input on the way Government policies are working or not working and they think should be different.
So that’s the mainstay of what we do, and in addition to that, we do one off things like cross examine the Secretary of State, junior ministers, the opposition, shadow spokesmen as well and try to get under the bonnet of the department and find out where the money goes; who spends most, who spends least, who gets the best results.
I find it a brilliant way to really, really understand the policy area which also means as well as holding the Government to account directly and coming up with policy proposals, it also means that when you’re taking part in debate more widely, you really can speak with a good base of knowledge.
TIA – Along with that, you hold regular surgeries in East Hampshire. What is their function and what can I expect if I were to go.
DH - You would only go if you had a reason to. What an MP does these days is quite different compared to 20 or 30 years ago, and what is called ‘Case Work’ is quite a big element and this has nothing to do with the legislative work of an MP, but to work as an advocate on behalf of constituents who come up against a brick wall of officialdom.
TIA – When the red tape is a bit too tight?
DH - Exactly. Most of it we do via post, email or by phone. But some things are so complex you need to sit down together and talk through it to understand it. Usually I deal with complex housing cases, immigration cases, Child Support Agency and then a series of ‘one off’ things; perhaps health care, schools. A whole range of stuff. All of it, I have no actually say over at all, so in some ways its a funny system. But also sometimes, and this is the hope, that you can get things speeded up a bit and we can get the relevant authority to look again at the case to see whether a better solution can be found. Some cases have been going on since before I was elected.
One of the best things about my job is the feeling that, because of your intervention, somebody’s life just became a little bit easier, and in some cases, a lot easier. Some of them can be quite serious! It doesn’t always work, because, as I say, I don’t have any actual control over these things, which can be frustrating as well.
I do two every fortnight. Every two weeks, there’s a set of two around four locations. In Alton, we meet at the Maltings, Petersfield at the Community Centre, Bordon at the Forest Community Centre and then the forth stop, I rotate around some of the larger villages, so Grayshott, Liss, Four Marks and we’ll probably vary that over time.
TIA – If I had an issue to discuss, do I need to book an appointment?
DH - Surgeries are by appointment and the best thing is to e-mail or telephone. E-mail is the easiest of all as it gets whole case out in one go and then, if its complicated, we’ll meet. You can e-mail me at Parliament.
I also do open meetings. During the election, I did 15 public meetings and i ended up really enjoying them. It was a great way for people to come along and ask what they like or give an opinion. I found it a really good way to understand what people are thinking. Its a great way to communicate – very old fashioned politics! So I decided after the election that I would carry on doing those and people seem to appreciate it. The next one is the 11th March when we will be discussing the woodland issue.
TIA – So you’re nine months into the job, and it sounds like you are really enjoying it….do you remember your first speech?
DH - Yeah, I do!
TIA – How did you feel?
DH - Not quite as nervous as you think you will . . . partly because I’d waited 12 hours to speak over two days and you can only keep up a heightened sense of nervousness for so long and you get more used to it. Sometimes you know, and sometimes you don’t when you are going to speak. You have to keep standing in a gap in the speeches to let the Speaker know that you wish to be called to speak and it carries on for hours. And then, on one occasion, he said ‘Damian Hinds’ . . . and I thought ‘Oh! Where’s my notes!’. So you don’t have time to be nervous.
The other thing is, for you first speech, your maiden speech, everyone is very nice to you, the place is silent. Which makes a change because it is otherwise never silent unless there is a maiden speech or the House is paying respects to those who have lost their lives in conflict. There’s always side conversations going on, and stuff in the periphery, but the maiden speech is very easy – the House is silent and everyone says nice things about you. But the next speech . . . the next speech is the killer! That certainly is petrifying! The drop-off of good will is 100%.
TIA – When you leave the chamber, presumably you all leave through one door, is there a camaraderie?
DH - Absolutely. Not with everyone, but I do have a couple of very good friendships across the floor and they are some of the relationships I value most in Parliament, actually. Its enriching, interesting, you get a different perspective on life, and also, in a funny sort of way, there’s no politics. If this guy from the Labour Party wants to hang out with me, have a cup of coffee together, it can only be because he likes me.
TIA – Thank you very much indeed for your time.
Your can contact Damian about any local issues that concern you by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can book an appointment at one of his surgeries by visiting www.damianhinds.com
STOP PRESS: Since the interview, the Conservative Party announced that the review of the Forests would no longer be going ahead.